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Teaching union warms to Shephard

THE NEW Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, yesterday won a warm response from the Professional Association of Teachers as she continued her goodwill offensive with the unions with a keynote speech.

She won enthusiastic applause from the delegates, meeting in Cheltenham, when she repeatedly stressed that she was going to listen to their concerns. 'We must get the new curriculum as right as we possibly can so that we can then have a period of stability and consolidation - which is what we all want.' But she combined this with a warning: 'This does not mean I am going soft on the education reforms.'

Unlike her predecessor, John Patten, who refused to meet the teaching unions when he first took up the post, by the end of yesterday she had met all six.

She used her background as a teacher and school inspector to insist that she knew about the problems teachers faced. And she pointed out that her husband, Tom, a former headmaster, is a lifelong member of the National Union of Teachers, the union she will have most problems with.

Mrs Shephard gave a strong indication that she would support moves for a General Teaching Council. 'If there come demands from the profession for a body which would seek to police and uphold the standards of the profession, I would like to look at it. That is the sort of body I would be happy to support.'

The minister also hinted at a relaxation in the approach to school league tables. She said groups she had met so far had told her they resented tables which did not take into account factors such as the ability of pupils on entry.

Mrs Shephard also urged teachers who were fearful of the effects of local government reorganisation on the education service to make their views known. Many thought that central services such as libraries, or peripatetic music teachers, would be lost.

Mrs Shephard said she looked forward to all schools soon carrying out school tests.

Although she said she could give no pledges on expanding nursery education, she said that John Major wanted her to look carefully at the possibility of expanding opportunities.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, yesterday urged Mrs Shephard to support the creation of a General Teaching Council to restore teachers' confidence and morale.